Thursday, April 9, 2020

Trek Watch: Star Trek - Generations (1994) & First Contact (1996)

Watched:  04/06 and 04/07/2020
Format:  Amazon Streaming
Viewing:  Third?  Second?
Decade: 1990's
Director: David Carson/ Jonathan Frakes

I still remember walking out of Star Trek: Generations (1994) and roughly saying "what the @#$% was that?"

A cheap looking movie with a singularly ridiculous end for one of my childhood fictional heroes, and a ludicrous A plot that went nowhere, meshed with a B plot that only Data got to experience.  It genuinely just felt like a very expensive episode or three of the series that spawned it - but not even a particularly brilliant episode or arc.

The movie isn't quite as rough as I remember, but it does still feel remarkably low-budget, lumped in with other genre pictures in the B category while studios were simultaneously pumping untold millions into off-brand sci-fi that would bring us epics like Independence Day.  Heck, for reference, the budget on this movie was maybe $25 million and Mars Attacks, two years later, was $70 million.

You can even tell they're just using sets and costumes from the TV show.  It's wild.  For a launch-vehicle for an all-new generation of films with beloved characters, you could absolutely tell Paramount was just kind of embarrassed about the whole affair.

Look, in 1994, geeks were still geeks.  Star Trek was a household brand name, but it was also synonymous with smelly nerds.   My guess is that the folks at Paramount probably didn't love the idea of dealing with this kind of nerd-tastic thing to begin with, and then Star Trek had and has so many weird ownership issues...  what stake did they really want to put into something that seemed niche and unappealing to the masses?  Then the thing made over $115 million as every dad in the world raced to the theaters for theatrical Trek.

As always, of course, Patrick Stewart is terrific, finding the humanity in Picard's journey, and the writers try to give him something to work with in the loss of his brother and nephew.  Whoopie Goldberg's appearance as Guinan hits squarely.  And I can't fault anything Spiner does as Data explores his character's new "emotion chip".  It's all solid acting - something this cast always had going for it.  Minus some of the guest stars.

Malcolm McDowell is good!  He just... doesn't matter.  His motivations are absurd, his scheme more so and contradictory to what we heard previously about the seductive power of the Nexus and how one winds up there.  He's just some guy and he kinda kills Kirk, who just met him 3 minutes prior.

In fact, that third reel of the film barely hang together as Kirk dies from metal fatigue and iffy plotting.  And gets buried under a pile of rocks on a planet he hadn't seen til 10 minutes before.  The crash-landing of the NCC-1701D just kinda looks like someone threw a toy of the Enterprise at a model train set and filmed it at 100 fps.  And it's not, by far, the worst thing the Enterprise has experienced, but for movie reasons, this is what takes it down.  Five minutes after they let Will Riker take the Captain's chair.  Poor Will.

First Contact (1996) had a better budget and made more money.  It's also got a new story with an old foe, ties to Trek lore and opportunities for the cast to do more - even Dr. Crusher.  It's got a balanced three-way split for the cast as Picard deals with his issues related to the Borg, Data explores humanity and bangs royalty, and the rest of the cast goes to 21st Century Nerd Fantasy Camp with James Cromwell.

The movie pretty well manages to balance humor, action, light body horror, character drama and Deanna Troi getting trashed.

All in all, it's hard to find fault with First Contact, really.  It flows naturally from the television show and feels bigger, while also really getting into some character stuff for our fearless Captain.  The Borg don't *really* make a lot of logical sense, but they are an interesting existential threat, and I'm glad the new Picard series seems to be challenging some of our assumptions about the Borg from seeds planted (intentionally or otherwise) from this film, Voyager and other shows.  Adding a Queen kinda sorta made sense, but in the way she showed up...?  Eh.  I'll accept it, I guess.

It's also the introduction of the Enterprise E, which is a great design.  Full Stop.

My memory is that the next movie is... not as good.  So.  We'll see.


Stuart said...

It's still so weird to me that the Star Trek production team filmed Generations and the TNG finale "All Good Things..." at the same time with different units. And the *clearly* inferior one went to multiplexes.

My reaction to Generations was extremely mixed. On the one hand, opening night was an EVENT. The theater was packed with nerds in costume. When Data did his fist-pump, the whole theater erupted in cheers. That was very cool to experience.

But as the movie sank in over a couple viewings, it became clearer how little of it held together. That Captain Kirk deserved a better ending was something my father and I felt so strongly that we began plotting a Star Trek novel as an alternative send-off over that summer.

First Contact was something I enjoyed at the time, but regard as well-made fan service now. It has some great moments. "Assimilate this." "The line must be drawn HERE." But... a lot of stuff happens while nothing of substance changes. Some of it at the expense of the characters.

The League said...

I'm not dismissing your comment, but I think talking about anything Trek-related post TOS and throwing out fan service as a criticism is both muddy waters and a slippery slope. And I'd argue that in an episodic but roughly serialized vehicle like Star Trek, having a movie with a beginning middle and end that tied to what had occurred before and provided character growth for two leads (which it arguably does for Picard and especially Data) is something. Especially with a fandom that loses it's mind if you touch anything about the dynamics (see: Picard).

I saw Generations opening weekend but not opening night, and you'd be hard-pressed to have found a hard-core Trek contingent in suburban Houston where I saw the movie. But, yeah, the finale of the series WAS far better. I just couldn't believe the death of Kirk was "he fell down a hill". Which I understand is the IMPROVED ending after reshoots.

I don't recall how the crowd reacted, I do just remember wondering if it was going to be worth actually turning up for these movies, which is what I ask after every other Trek movie I see.

Stuart said...

So, "fan service" is probably too harsh. I guess I mean that they brought back The Borg because that's the most popular villain from the series. The Borg are a scary villain, and have a cool factor (techno zombies!) that others don't. BUT, I don't believe First Contact used The Borg in a way that meaningfully added to our understanding of the characters.

Clearly Picard still had lingering trauma related to his experience with The Borg. But I think he was shoehorned into the Captain Ahab role. I don't believe he would've needed a stranger to point out his callous disregard for assimilated crewmembers. I don't believe he would've called Worf a coward, as much as I liked the payoff from that scene.

I felt some of the humor also came at the expense of character and undermined the stakes of the mission. Troi getting drunk, while funny, undermined her professionalism. It was nice to see some cameos like Barclay and the EMH, but they served no purpose beyond it being nice to see them again (ie, fan service).

I *get* a lot of the decisions made as far as focusing on action and humor to appeal to a wider audience. And at the time, I was happy with that, because it meant more Star Trek movies. But, looking backs, it now feels extraneous and slightly exploitive of the characters. I don't hate it, but I don't revisit it much. I don't get why it lands on so many Best lists.

I'd rather watch a better-than-average TNG episode.

The League said...

I'm not sure Berman and his writers had matured from writing TV to writing for film by the time you hit this movie (or ever did if my memory of Insurrection is correct). In general I like the movie, but it feels like a 2 or 3 part episode with a better budget. But I also don't blink at all at the "Troi had a drink with Cochrane" bit. It doesn't feel out of character, necessarily. And I *really* don't mind the character moment with Picard calling Worf a coward as it shows how far down the hole Picard has gone, and that he isn't at his best anymore, which is the point of his arc. He's not making good decisions and it's costing him left and right. The point of the scene *is* the trauma so he can move forward from it, as evidenced by his apology. We may just have very different opinions on what Picard is like beneath the collected exterior.

Stuart said...

On Generations looking cheap: I did appreciate that finally the windows were letting through some sunlight, but recycling the bird of prey explosion from Star Trek VI was pretty egregious.

The League said...

yeah, it was a really weird thing. Right down to "why does this kitchen just look like a normal 20th Century kitchen? No motion detection on the sink? I mean... come on."

Stuart said...

Honestly though, I'm never going to fault Star Trek for looking cheap. Much like the unconvincing effects in Godzilla movies, that's just become part of its charm. If you want high production values, there are other sci-fi franchises. Star Trek has always been known for great scripts, re-used studio sets, and styrofoam rocks; and I'm cool with that.

The League said...

On the TV shows of the 60's - 90's and given what budgets and limitations were, I fully agree. I just think Paramount did as little as possible for a feature film and it did a disservice to the story and legacy. But by and large, I agree. Just finished watching "Birthright" in Season 6, and holy moley were there some themes and character bits running through there.